I’m not sure where I first heard about this text, but the paradigm’s focus on disciplinary bottlenecks intrigued me and seemed reflective of a great deal of interest at Middlebury in connection to helping students to think like a …. scientist, historian, educator, economist, etc. The decoding paradigm relies on three assumptions:
- Learning is focused on disciplinary processes
- We must concentrate on what students need to be able to do
- Experts are not always able to identify the basic necessary tasks in a disciplinary field because those processes have become automatic to them
The decoding process is broken up into seven steps:
“Identify a bottleneck
Define the mental operations needed to get past the bottleneck
Model these tasks explicitly
Give students practice and feedback
Motivate the students and deal with potential emotional blocks
Assess how well students are mastering the mental operations
Share what you have learned about your students’ learning”(Pace, D., 2017, p. 6)
A lot of what is covered in this texts reflects what we already know to be effective practices to improve student learning, however I found the chapters on identifying bottlenecks and dealing with students’ emotional blocks to provide some of the most transformative material.
Bottlenecks are those process areas where professors can predict that a majority of their students’ will get stuck. Pace makes the argument that:
“The mistakes that students make in our courses become gifts that can serve to increase our understanding of how to better teach our disciplines and even illuminate the deeper nature of those disciplines”(Pace, D., 2017, p. 26).
A key to identifying bottlenecks is focusing on what students need to be able to do, or the mental operations that a student must perform to complete a task within the discipline. These bottlenecks can be difficult for experts to identify, and Pace suggests decoding interviews to help hone in on the core of the difficulty that students are experiencing. The interview can begin with asking professors how they would get past the bottleneck that stumps their students. The interviewer will focus on breaking down the answer into a specific set of steps by asking follow up questions.
Pace notes that bottleneck patterns that have emerged in multiple fields include:
Moving back and forth from models to concrete situations
Integration of details
Issues of scale
Procedures for knowledge generation”(Pace, D., 2017, p. 24 – 25).
This chapter seemed particularly relevant given our current polarized political climate. It offered a great deal of guidance and suggestions to help professors be proactive in their management of student emotions to ensure that students are familiar with a process for objective engagement with content before they engage with information that may evoke an emotional and personal reaction.
“…what students learn in a college classroom may disrupt the once harmonious flow of opinions around the family dinner table. In some cases what they are studying may even be perceived as a betrayal of the family and the culture within which they have been raised”(Pace, D., 2017, p. 84 – 85)
In addition, students’ preconceived notions of how they believe a college classroom will function, and the ways in which they will need to study to be successful may come in direct conflict with the disciplinary ways of thinking that students need to acquire. Here again, a proactive approach to teaching students methods and practices that will benefit them in your class is a good way to head off or, at least dampen this reaction before it can occur. A great way to do this is by asking students to share with future students what they need to do to be successful in the class and including this content as a part of your syllabus for subsequent cohorts.
Pace also emphasizes that professors should not dismiss either of these types of misconceptions. Instead, professors should help students to see these prior understandings as building blocks to new levels of learning.
This is a great read for any teacher who is very interested in developing disciplinary ways of thinking in their students. The text provides many examples and practical suggestions that break big ideas down into actionable steps. There is also a web site that compiles and summarizes much of the material into easily accessible chunks.